- verb to reduce by one in ten
- verb to kill a large number of people
Origin & History of “decimate”
Decimate is a cause célèbre amongst those who apparently believe that words should never change their meanings. The original general signification of its Latin source, the verb decimāre, was the removal or destruction of one tenth (it was derived from Latin decem ‘ten’), and it may perhaps strike the 20th century as odd to have a particular word for such an apparently abstruse operation. It does, however, arise out of two very specific procedures in the ancient world: the exaction of a tax of one tenth (for which indeed English has the ultimately related word tithe), and the practice in the Roman army of punishing a body of soldiers guilty of some crime such as mutiny by choosing one in ten of them by lot to be put to death. Modern English does not perhaps have much use for a verb with such specialized senses, but the general notion of impassive and indiscriminate slaughter implied in the Roman military use led, apparently as early as the mid-17th century, to the modern sense ‘kill or destroy most of’.